Cartman Co-operative

We just coined a new phrase today: Cartman Co-operative.
My friend Josh and I were discussing the new Star Trek: Frontiers game; it’s a re-theming of Mage Knight into the Star Trek universe. We are both fans of Star Trek, so we were looking forward to playing it. (I am excited: it just shipped yesterday).

“I wonder how much it’ll be like Mage Knight. I mean, it’s co-operative, but we all seem to do what we want. I want to attack that monster, but so do you, so whoever gets there first gets the monster.”

“It’s Cartman co-operative: I do what I want.”

Cartman

If you’ve ever watched South Park, the character Cartman is the epitomy of selfishness, as exemplified by his catch-phrase (one of his many):

“I do what I want”.

cartman

This seemed to be the vibe every time we played Mage Knight. In general, we were helping each other, but if there came a chance for glory, we tended to take that chance (regardless if it would have been better if someone else did it). I am not saying everyone plays like this, but for some reason, the games we played seemed always to  go this way.

Games that are Cartman Co-operative

If the nature of a co-operative game encourages more “free will” and  selfishness, we will call it a Cartman co-operative game.

Examples:

  • Mage Knight: (The canonical Cartman co-operative game)
  • Legendary

Why Legendary? Since there is a lot of emphasis on victory points (and some of the heroes you choose concentrate more on points rather than winning), the game is co-operative unless someone can “do what they want” to get more points at the end.

I think any co-operative board game that tends to concentrate on points will tend to be Cartman co-operative. Can you think of others?

 

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When Should Players Discard Cards?

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And yes this picture is relevant.  Keep reading.

In the gaming world, there are many mechanics which can mean the  difference between Life and Death! Fun and Boring! Exciting and Dreary!

When to discard cards (down to the hand limit) isn’t one of them.

Or is it?

Concrete Example: CO-OP

In the current version of my game CO-OP: the co-op game, the question of when  to discard cards has moved through four (count ’em, four!) different  iterations of “When do players discard down to the hand limit?”

You might wonder: “Um what? Are there even that many places in the game you can discard?”  In the order that we play-tested and tried it out:

1) Each player discards at the end of his turn.
2) All players discard only after everyone has played, at the end of the Players Turn phase.
3) Players never discard.
4) All players discard only at the start of End of Day Maintenance phase.

Stage One:The Original

In the original version, each player discards down to the hand limit at the end of his turn. This means: Player 1 plays, then discards. Player 2 plays, then discards. And so on.

This led to some “questioning” of what happens if someone plays a card that give you more cards after you discard. For example, a player can play a card that allows everyone to draw another card. This led to players asking: “Do you have to discard again?” The answer: no: you only discard only at the end of the your turn, so you can potentially have a larger hand size.  It was definitely to the players’s advantage.

To try to “clear-up” the question above, there was a clarification in the rulebook to this effect.

Stage Two: Simpler Rule

One playtest noted that this rule would be a lot simpler to state if you just make everyone discard after everyone has played. That way, you don’t need any disambiguating FAQ in the rulebook for the nuance listed above.  Everyone just discards at the end of the turn after EVERYONE has played: no weird “over hand limit” rules. Everyone will ALWAYS be under the hand limit because everyone discards at the same time.

This seemed simpler to explain and avoided a corner case: so I changed it, simplified the rulebook (didn’t need the clarifying text anymore) and moved on.

Stage Three: No Hand Limit

One way to avoid the discard rule is simply to have NO HAND LIMIT: You don’t have to discard!

That’s as simple as can be. And, ideally that makes sense in a co-operative game: there’s no notion of balancing players. The game has a cap on how many turns are played, so you can’t play all your cards anyways. So even if you get a bunch of cards, it won’t throw the game off.

Boy, were we wrong.

A playtest just got rid of the hand limit and it was a disaster. Too much choice, too much maintenance, too much reading (as players had to read all their new cards), too much decision when it came time to play (as decisions opened up when you could have more cards).

At least for CO-OP: having a hand limit is important to keep the game tractable and (more important) fun. There was just too much choice with too many cards (see my blog post on this from earlier).

Stage Four: Discarding is Maintenance

So, CO-OP reverted to Stage Two mechanics: everyone discards after everyone has played.

A later playetest (with Stage Two in effect) noted that discarding is a maintenance rule. And they were right. The next phase after the players play is called End of Day Maintenance, so why not move the action to the start of the next phase?

Honestly, it makes perfect sense! Whether you all discard at the end of the player’s turns or the start of the next (maintenance) phase, it is operationally the same.

And conceptually, it’s easy to explain: discarding is a maintenance activity, so it should happen in a maintenance phase.

Annoying

Later on, I was doing a bunch of playtests by myself (exploring how  to make certain powers a little better). And, I kept getting forgetting to discard. It was annoying. Why?

I’d play my turn. My natural inclinatation was to discard at the end of my turn. But, I’d have to tell myself: “No, discard in the maintenance phase”. So, after everyone played, I’d have to go through and “refresh” my brain as to what my cards were were. Wasn’t I just looking at my cards when I played?

Caching

There’s a fundamental principle in Computer Science/Architecture for speeding up computation: it’s called “caching”. Caching is when you compute something computationally complex and  store in very fast (but very small) memory so it’s easy to recall again. If you use the same value again very soon, you can simply retrieve it quickly without having to recompute it; the result is a speedup.  For example: a Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) uses something called a “Twiddle Table” to store sin/cos of certain values.
Both sin/cos are fairly expensive things to compute (they are based on infinite series which is usually computed with a table lookup and an interpolation. Seriously, fairly expensive), but if you compute the same size FFT over and over again, you can “cache” these commonly used values so you don’t have to recompute them.
The problem with caching is that if you don’t use the  value you “cached” soon, it “flushes” and is no longer available for fast retrieval. Sometimes you don’t have enough space to “cache” everything you want, and the value you wanted gets flushed.  For FFTs, if your twiddle table gets too  large (for megapoint FFTs), your cached values can get flushed and you don’t get the speedup you hoped for.

Caching and Cards

What do FFTs and caches have to do with “When do I discard?” It’s all about what’s in the player’s brain (I.e., what has the player thought about recently so it’s in his “cache?”)

When I discard at the end of my turn, I have just played, so I am thinking about what cards are in my hand. The cards are “cached” in my brain.  It’s easy to think about.

When I discard AFTER everyone has played, I have flushed my cache. I have helped someone else, I have been looking at some rules, I  have been looking at somebody else’s cards. So, to discard,  I have to go look at all my cards AGAIN and decide what to discard.

The conclusion:  It’s more natural for a player to discard at the end of his turn when he is  thinking about his cards.

Full Circle

After all that, we came back full circle to the original rule! Each player discards at the end of his turn!

What about the “possible confusion” where players can have more than the hand limit? Well, it turns out it doesn’t happen that often. It’s not a corner case that comes up all the time. It’s actually fairly rare! If it does come up, a sophisticated group will realize that it’s a good thing, as someone can hold an extra card! A less sophisticated group might force down to the hand limit regardless, but it’s not a big deal. If it makes their life simpler, great. The group decides, which is the fundamental rule of CO-OP anyways: if there’s every a discrepancy, the group decides.

A strict rules lawyer will note that the the hand limit is ONLY enforced at the end of a player’s turn. This is a nuance that enables a few more opportunities in the game.

After all this, we can say with conviction this is the right thing: Each player discards at the end of his turn. It’s simple and natural, and tends to move play along faster (as the
card selection tends to be cached at that point). This rule has a small nuance to it, but once the players really understand this nuance, they will realize it’s good for them.

 

A Night of Magic

bbom

The other night, my friends and I got a chance to play not just 1, but 2 magic-themed games!  Trickerion and Big Book of Madness. Trickerion is a worker placement game with magicians performing for the most glory. Big Book of Madness is a co-op game (which could easily have been lifted from the Harry Potter universe) about students in a Hogwarts-esque setting.  They “accidentally” open the wrong book and let loose some evil! The student have to work together to close the book or  … bad things happen.

My friends Joe “Junkerman” and CC both really liked Big Book of Madness, so I asked them to write a review for me. So, below is a review of “Big Book of Madness” by Iello games. Joe takes lead, and CC follows up with some interesting comments.

Junkerman’s Review

Let’s start this off right:

Brief:
I was pretty confused when reading the rules, but it came together pretty well. In game, we were a little clueless and probably made some mistakes at the start, but we hit a stride by the third page, and were able to figure out a little cooperative strategy to win. We kept discovering new “magic tricks” for solving problems throughout. Fun game!

Theme: 7
Gameplay: 8
Instructions: 4 (man, very few games score above 5 here)
Cooperative Play: 8 (some coop games don’t involve a lot of real cooperation)

Background:
We’ve all played several cooperative games of varying complexity: Ghost Stories, Pandemic, Arkham Horror, etc…

Theme:
So, we all liked the book layout for bad stuff coming at us turn-by-turn –it looked great, easy to manipulate, easy to track, totally thematic, original, fun! Huge bonus there. I’m sure if Donald Trump invented this game, there would be no end to his gleeful gestures, squinting, and superlatives. 😉 Loved the production, the art, and the layout was relatively streamlined. One idiosyncratic problem I had was that the character cards have no names on them. I guess I’m a bit of a ham, as I want to respond to the character when I’m playing. I always remember Felicia Day playing Lords of Waterdeep on TableTop, singing the name of her guild every turn, “~Silver~ ~Stars~” to the merriment of the group. I want to announce, “Dr Doorstop jumps out the window,” or in this case, “Frida Frostpickle telepathically summons Ernesto Econowand to support her with three fire!”

Confusion:
Most of our confusion centered on our actions. What is that for? Why would we want to do that? Why don’t I just focus on one thing? What’s the priority resource at any given moment? On the board we had a few problems with figuring out the setup, starting resources, which cards were which. Once we got started it was a little confusing where things start and where they end. We had issues mid-game with what happens when we “Destroy” madness cards. We ended up figuring that when they get “destroyed,” they get discarded away from the source stack –which pushes us closer to losing. We also had a few mid-game issues with some of the spell abilities, how much they can accomplish, and where they are limited.

Gameplay:
We started a little on our heels. We were unable to prevent several curses from happening, and didn’t kill the first monster. I think we killed the second and successive monsters, but were unable to stop all of the curses happening, especially on early turns. By the end of the game, we had built up a little planning into our actions, getting ready for the next page, and we did pretty well. It was nice to feel like you can get it together as a team, put together a tentative plan, and make it mostly work.

Cooperative Play:
I was surprised how much we used telepathy. Those were the first group of spells we all upgraded. Likewise, I was totally surprised how super-powerful the blue spell was –that lets you take cards from the discard pile into support. Wow. That was awesome! At the start it seemed silly, then -bam- we started figuring out how cool support was. I’d say 50% of our plays were to assist other players, and it felt awesome to make some uber-support action by putting all triple resource cards into support or something, “Okay, I’ll just do this, this and –THIS! Uh-huh! How do you all like me now?”

Overall:
I think if the rules had benefited from some decent tech-writing skill, this game would be a double fist-pumper. Writing rules is tricky. It’s not quite like a book, where if the reader has to go back, it means you didn’t write it very well. They need to be put into an accessible form for easy reference. Every section needs a little general “this thing is for this, which you’ll need on that turn.” That helps a ton. If you’ve never ventured beyond the boundaries of Monopoly, this game could be more than mildly confusing. If you’ve been devoured by Cthulu in more than one game, this should be a fun romp!

-rockin’ review by Junkerman

CC’s Afterthoughts

Joe’s review is spot-on. Agree on all points.

About all I’d add is a little bit about the production quality. I was really happy with the art and component design. Joe mentioned the stand-out design on the book, but the art, character portraits, and other elements were really appealing, too. The theme really shone through the mechanics thanks to the evocative visual design of everything.

I did think the track seemed a little confusing, how it looped to a little two-part thing up at the top, instead of truly going left-to-right. It wasn’t clear if that two-part thing was actually two steps or one step, and the odd sequence design left room for some confusion. I suspect it was a compromise based on the limitation of the board space; they needed enough room to place cards on all five slots, and there wasn’t room for a sixth. But I think the nature of that space on the board could have been better communicated.

(It just occurred to me that maybe that was because it wasn’t a space, and you don’t actually get a “sixth turn” as a breather between pages – that the first curse comes out on the first turn, and when you finish page five, you go immediately to page one, and those symbols are just to remind you what you are supposed to do when you “loop around”. Were we cheating?)

Overall, though, solid and enjoyable. I liked it enough to pick up a copy myself.

CC

A Day at UNPUB Mini San Diego

Some of you were wondering how UNPUB Mini in SAN DIEGO went. The notion of UNPUB is that game designers with a  bunch of unpublished games come together and have new players playtest their games.  (In this case, we all came to Pair A Dice games in San Diego). This event was run by Galvanized Studios, and they put on a great event.

For me, this event was to playtest CO-OP: the co-op game. How did it go? Very well!IMG_2315_90

1) I got about 6 playtests from 6 very different groups. I had only signed up for one slot (because I signed up so late), but the people who ran it were very nice and very professional and let me have 2 more gaming sessions (also because a few people didn’t show).

2) I ended up with about 12 UNPUB forms. An UNPUB form is “what did you think of the game after playing it”, but in written form.

In general, all were positive. 9 out of 12 said they’d buy the game. 9 out of 12!

I was thinking that, “well, maybe only the positive people wrote something up”, but as Chris D. says, “Have you seen the Internet? People aren’t shy about expressing bad opinions”. So, if Chris is right, yay!

3) One form looked like a ringer, but it wasn’t!  (See picture above). All 5 out of 5! And left an email address in case I Kickstart! (Deleted from picture to preserve their privacy).

4) I saw “The Perfect Playtest”.

This family of 4 walked up and asked to play. I was nervous, because there were some young kids (5, 9, and 11). The 5-year old sat on Dad’s lap and just watched. The other kids looked young … were they too young?

The other kids were GREAT! I just watched them play: they laughed, they read all the cards, they were bummed when their VIBE went down, they worked together, and they just barely won. AND THEY HAD FUN!  I had fun just watching them!

And yes, the Dad signed up and gave me his email.

They didn’t really have a lot of negative feedback (they found a few issues here and there).  It was clear those kids play a lot of games, so I think if something really stood out as bad, they would have said something.  It does tell me the game is almost done.  There are really no big balance issues, there are no real obvious deficiencies, and most important: it was fun!

I have been nervous about putting ages 10 and up in my rulebook.  But every single time I’ve had younger kids play, they seem to really enjoy it.  This playtest clinched it: I think ages 10 and up is appropriate.

5) Found some other places to go for cards.

I have been going to the Games Crafter (somewhere in Madison, WI) for my cards. They are kind of expensive, but they do a great job.

One other game designer (I’ll call him B. to preserve his privacy) pointed me to two new places: qualityplayingcards and printerstudio

Apparently, B. said he can get 200 cards printed, with tuck box and shrink wrap, delivered to his door, for $7 a box. Now, the minimum order is 1000, but if I can get games for $7 a box, I might be able  to sell it! It seems like $19.99 is the magic price point: anything more, and people are less likely to buy. Anything less, and it seems like something is wrong with it. I might be able to go to $30 for a Kickstarter with shipping. (And this price came from qualityplaycards).  I imagine $7 for production, (amortized cost) $7-13 for artist, $10 shipping will put me at $30 if I kickstart. If I can lower to $25, then I think I stand a better chance for a kickstart.

The interesting thing is how expensive shipping can be.

6) Artists.

More great advice from B.: make a standard contract with Artist’s or you’ll get burned: 50% up front, and a penalty for missing the deadline (10%). Ben told me he paid an artist 100% up front, and he never saw anything. They have no incentive to do anything after they have the money.

7) Met some great game designers.

If nothing else, there are at least 3-4 game designers I will try to stay in touch with. They had some good feedback and good ideas, and good places to go for future playtests.

In general, a favorable response. My inner grump was “worried” that since I signed up for just 1 session, I’d go, have 1 playtest and that’d be it. Nope, it worked out SO WELL.

 

The Alpha Player “Problem”

Incredibles_hair

Have you ever played a co-operative game in which one player takes over, telling everyone else what to do? That player makes other people feel unimportant as he co-opts (pun intended) the game. This is the Alpha Player Problem: someone who simply takes over the co-operative game and makes it less fun for everyone.

“Boy, what a jerk! I don’t want to play him anymore!”
“Ya! No more co-ops with him!”

I have a confession: I have been the Alpha Player before. It’s true! I hate to admit it, but I can think of a few Arkham Horror or Pandemic games where I knew the right thing to do to win, and I let it be known to everyone. I admit I try very hard not to be that guy, but every so often, in the heat of the game, my Alpha Player comes out. And my friends, whom I adore, have also been the Alpha Player. We have all been that guy at one point.

I want it to be clear, in general, Alpha Players aren’t necessarily jerks. I have to argue that, or I am calling myself a jerk.  Sometimes, a new player is really in need of a very guided tour of a game—In that case, the Alpha Player is acting as a guide/teacher. But, it’s a very thin line: too much Alpha Player and the guide becomes insufferable.

Alpha Player Syndrome

Rather than call it the Alpha Player problem, I’d prefer to call it the Alpha Player Syndrome. The Syndrome lurks within all of us (some of us more than others), so it’s not a problem per se, rather something that simply exists. If we know it exists, then we can work with it! If, on the other hand we deny it’s existence, then it will come out at the worst time and ruin a game.

Knowing that it exists, there are things to do to mitigate that effect.

  1.  Don’t play with jerks. There are players who are jerks and will always be jerks. Don’t play with them.
  2. Don’t be a jerk. Recognize that you have that tendency and simply watch yourself. (Are you an Engineer? You might have a higher tendency towards Alpha Player. And yes, I am of that ilk.) You want to keep your friends and play board games with them more often, so just keep the Alpha Player in check.

There are some people who claim that some games “cause” Alpha Player Syndrome (Pandemic, Arkham Horror are two canonical examples). I disagree whole-heartedly with this sentiment! How can an inanimate board game cause players to be Alpha Players? That’s like blaming Moby Dick for Captain Ahab’s obsession! One of the major themes of Moby Dick was that the whale had no inherent evil: it simply existed and Captain Ahab ascribed the evil/lifelike qualities to it. I think the same can be said of board games: players bring their own conceptions to an inanimate game when they play. Having said that: A game, by its nature, can tend to attract a certain type of player. But that’s very different than saying some game causes “Alpha Player Syndrome”.

I bring this point up because I bristle when I hear: “That game has the Alpha Player Problem!” No, some people playing it may have Alpha Player Syndrome. I don’t believe we should blame an inanimate board game for something that comes from within ourselves.

Mechanics That Can Mitigate Alpha Player Syndrome

But, there can be mechanics that help “curb” Alpha Player Syndrome. I’ve played co-operative games for some time, and I’ve noticed the things below tend to mitigate the syndrome.

1) Keep the play moving.

As long as each player can player quickly and do something interesting on their turn, the Alpha Players tend to lie dormant. I’ve noticed that the Alpha Player tends to come out when there’s indecision or a slowdown in a game. They tend to “fill in” the slowdown to keep the game moving.

If your game moves along quickly for all players, there is less chance of the Alpha Player.

EXAMPLES: Space Panic!, Bomb Squad (anything with a timer), Sentinels Of The Multiverse (it plays quickly)

2) Each player has information that an Alpha Player can’t “absorb” quickly.

This could be something as simple as having secret information that the Alpha Player can’t know. Or, there could be just too many cards/pieces for the Alpha Player to read and figure out.

If someone can’t absorb what other players know/have/do, then they can’t make an informed opinion and the innate Alpha Player tends to remain quiet (rather than look stupid).

EXAMPLES: Shadows Over Camelot (some cards are hidden), Arkham Horror (each player just has a lot of stuff and it’s sometimes too hard to keep track of everything), Sentinels of the Multiverse (each player has a lot of cards with a lot of text)

3) Gameplay that recognizes the discrepancy between Expert and Novice players IN THE SAME GAME.

If a novice has to try to play at the same level as an expert, both the expert and the novice quickly become frustrated (and the Alpha Player quickly takes over). There are many games where the “simplest” character is given to the novice, and the “harder” characters are given to the experts. The novice can come up to speed and understand their character quickly, while the expert has to “read” and takes longer to come up to speed.

Although Pandemic doesn’t strictly do this, I’ve found that first time players should always play the Medic! It’s the easiest to play and understand and feel useful. Experts can have more complex characters which tends to engage them more so they are less likely to Alpha Player. The novice can come up to speed quickly and keep play moving (see 1 above) and the expert can become engrossed in his more complex character.
EXAMPLES: CO-OP (the rules encourage first-time players towards certain characters), Secrets of the Lost Tomb (directions encourage certain characters for certain games), Pandemic (see above)

4) Rotating Primary Player

Every turn, someone new is “in charge”, and it rotates through all players.

In TIME STORIES, a different character is Captain at the start of every “turn”. In CO-OP, the Karma Chameleon changes every day. In Arkham Horror, the first player rotates (a lesser notion of in charge, but a notion nonetheless).

Thus, that person that is in charge IS the Alpha Player for that turn! This is a great example of recognizing that the Alpha Player Syndrome exists in all of us! And then embracing it! We can let loose with our Alpha Player for a turn, then go back to a good citizen next turn. Let the beast out for a day, then put it away!

Seriously, if makes it easier to tolerate some Alpha Player Syndrome if you know your turn (to be Alpha Player) is coming up.

 

Conclusion

Some of the examples above won’t necessarily work together: You can’t put a timer on every game, some games don’t have simple characters, simplicity in design that makes an awesome game will not have the complexity that tends to fend off Alpha Players. But, they can help.

Alpha Player Syndrome does exist. We’ve seen it in others, and (some of us) have seen it in ourselves. Sometimes, it just comes out naturally because of the combination of people, experience levels, personalities, and ability. That doesn’t mean we should let it ruin our games. If we watch for it, knowing it can appear, we can keep it under control. As Jefferson said “Eternal vigilance is the price we pay for liberty”. Or perhaps, more apropos to a gaming blog, Jean-Luc Picard once said: “Vigilance, Mister Worf – that is the price we have to continually pay” (with obvious allusions to Jefferson). In this case, we must be vigilant of Alpha Player Syndrome, lest it overtake us.

Too Much Choice versus Too Little Choice in Co-operative Games

Recently, I have been working on my own co-op card game (called, interestingly enough, “CO-OP: The CO-OP game”). I have been getting lots of playtesting on my game from many, many groups.  Some feedback is better than others, but in general, there is always some nugget that’s useful. (“This card needs to be fixed”, “This text in the rulebook needs to be moved”, “This rules should be re-worded”, etc.). All very useful.

The problem is what to do when you have contradictory feedback. Basically, a lot of the contradictory feedback I’ve seen boils down to “I have too much choice” or “I have too little choice”.

The basic game hasn’t changed much since GAMA, but a lot of tweaks have made it better. The main negative feedback I have gotten from some playtest groups is “there’s not enough to do, and that made it less fun.” This kind of feedback definitely resonates in the side of “there’s too little choice”. Below is some discussions of problems and solutions, what worked and what didn’t for this problem. This is all in the name of making games more fun!

1) There used to be “bad news” cards where players could lose turns.

Losing turns in a thing of the past (but see below). I should have listened to James M. from Minion games. (see link)
http://www.jamesmathe.com/game-design-for-dummies/

James basically expounds that players should never lose turns in a game. And he’s mostly right (again, see below). So, in my game “bad news — lose turns” has been replaced by some other “bad effects”,  such as disallowing a particular type of action. That way, players can still do SOMETHING on their turns.

As my friend CC said, “It’s no fun when you don’t get to do anythingon your turn.” Touche’.

However, as an interesting counterpoint, there was contradictory feedback on this point from another playtest group:

“It doesn’t matter if you lose a turn,
since you decide as a group who gets to play and who doesn’t.
It’s a team effort, so it’s not as big a deal as in competitive
games. Part of the co-operative experience is figuring out who’s
going to ‘take it’ for the team.”

That was basically my position on the “lose turn” issue for a while:  hard-core gamers seemed to get that in a co-operative game (every so often), someone has to “take it” for the team.   BUT, at least as seen from my playtests, casual gamers don’t like losing  turns. They think it’s less fun.

So, for the most part, I got rid of all cards where you lose a turn.   I can’t argue with all the playtests.  (I kept just one turn loss “bad news” because it was very thematic; I still like the idea that somebody “takes it for the team”.  I think that idea is okay in a co-op game, but it appears I am  definitely in the minority).

2) The hand limit was too small and inconsistent.

The hand limit used to be 3 or 4 depending on the number of players. After lots of playtesting, it was clear the hand limit needed to be upped: it’s now always 5, no matter how many players.

There’s two reasons this is better:

  1.  Fewer rules means fewer ways for players to get confused; there’s exactly one hand limit, no matter how many players.
  2. More options. If you have more cards, you have more options on your turn.

Upping the hand limit gives the players more options, so they felt like you can do more on their turns. That made it more fun for them.

3) BUT … there is still a hand limit.

We playtested without a hand limit, and it was a disaster.

The cards grew quickly in the player’s hand! Physically managing that  many cards was NOT fun. HINT: I am trying to make the game MORE FUN!

And there were too many options: of the 16 cards, which one to play? Players have to read them all and then decide … and that takes time. So people are waiting (and waiting) for a player to play, and that  waiting makes it less fun.  REMINDER: I am trying to make the game more fun.

And the game was too easy. If it’s too easy, who wants to play?

For all these reasons, there still is a hand limit.  Too little choice, there’s no fun because you can’t do anything.  Too much choice, and it’s no fun because of the overwhelming  amount of physical and mental information. Five cards seems a good balance.

4) Too many options is even worse in a CO-OPERATIVE game.

“What?” You ask? “How can too many options be a problem? The whole point of a co-operative game is to explore the problem space and come to a consensus. More options seems good!”

Go back to the “no hand limit” issue. If just one person has to read 16 cards and decide, that’s already annoying. But if 3 more people have to help decide, then you have to read all the cards aloud, decide amongst each other, and everyone will have different ideas. It will take *much longer* to go through the choices.

That’s another reason to be very careful with too many options:  you want to avoid the Alpha Player problem.  (The Alpha Player Problem is where one person takes over the game and essentially tells everyone what to play, thus making everyone else become or feel irrelevant).  As long as the game is flowing quickly, it’s harder for an Alpha Player to jump in and take over. As long as someone can play fairly timely, the Alpha Player tends to lie dormant. The Alpha Player usually only appears when there’s indecision. By limiting the number of options, the game flows quicker, limits indecision, and fends off the Alpha Player.

5) The FROLIC action is never used.

(The FROLIC action is how you cheer people in the CO-OP game, but it has some limits). It seems sad (no pun intended) that a game option to FROLIC and have fun isn’t used very much!

So, note that all of the changes from points (1)-(4) make the game easier.
There are more choices, and fewer turns are lost, so the players get a lot more done. So, we have to adjust the game difficulty so it’s not too easy. How? The standard way is to add more cards to the bad news deck. This is undesirable because it makes the game longer: the game has been designed to be about 40-45 minutes on purpose! My very first playetest showed how important it is to limit the length of the game or players lose interest quickly.

There is a better way: Start the players at DREARY instead of OK. That way, players are
(probably) forced to used the FROLIC action at some point during the game. It’s sorta like losing a turn, but it just forces you to spend a turn doing a FROLIC action. And there are other ways to move up from DREARY to OK, so it doesn’t have to be that!  There are strategically many ways to do that.

So, this is a case of win-win:

  1. We can adjust he difficultly without increasing the length of the game
  2. We can force more variety on actions by making FROLIC more likely
  3. It’s more thematic: the players start the game “bummed” because they are in a bad situation they have to get out of!

Conclusion

So after a bunch of feedback, I think is game is more fun: I have removed lost turns. I have upped the hand limit (but not too much, and still keeping the hand limit). I have kept the game balanced WITHOUT making it longer (by trading lost turns for more FROLICs). These three minor changes seems to address a lot of the “you can’t do enough and it’s less fun”.

After all these changes, I got some other feedback that goes the other way: “By drawing a card each turn, you have less reason to MEDITATE  (the name of the action for drawing cards), and spend a turn drawing cards. You might be able to create a nice tension by not getting a card unless you specifically MEDIATE.” I think this falls in the direction “there is too much to do”, so limit what the player can do. (This comes from someone I really respect as a gamer: he knows his stuff and he is a hard-core gamer).

I think this is a great idea, BUT it completely contradicts all the playtesting I’ve done. Almost all of the negative feedback is of the nature “There’s too little to do” (which I thingk I have now fixed).  I am afraid this change (don’t always draw a card) would cause the “too little to do” problem to re-emerge. I think casual gamers would HATE that rule, but hard-core gamers would love it.

What to do with contradictory playtests?

  1. Go with the majority playtests: What do most people say and do?
  2. Incorporate it in as an option
  3. Ignore completely
  4. Rework mechanics

I think the right thing here is to do (1) and (2): Make the default the current way it is right now, but add an optional “expert” mode where players don’t always draw cards! That way the casual gamers (who  won’t read all the rules anyways) play the game they will like, and hard-core gamers (who will tend to read all rules and variants) can try those out.
It’s almost like I co-operated with all my playtesters to find the best solutions which address their concerns.